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What is Justice?

“War and battle” are the opening words of Plato’s Gorgias, and the declaration of war against the corrupt society is its content. Gorgias, the famous teacher of rhetoric, is in Athens as the guest of Callicles, an enlightened politician. It is a day of audience. Gorgias receives vis­itors and is ready to answer all questions addressed to him. Socrates, with his pupil Chaerephon, calls at Callicles’ house in order to see the great man. The ultimate motif of the battle is not stated explicitly but indicated, as so frequently with Plato, through the form of the dialogue.

Gorgias is somewhat exhausted by the stream of visitors and the hours of conversation, and he lets his follower Polus open the discussion; Socrates leaves the opening game to Chaerephon. The battle is engaged in as a struggle for the soul of the younger generation. Who will form the future leaders of the polity: the rhetor who teaches the tricks of political success, or the philosopher who creates the substance in soul and society?

Ask Him Who He Is

The substance of man is at stake, not a philosophical problem in the modern sense. Socrates suggests to Chaerephon the first question: Ask him “Who he is” (447D). That is for all times the decisive ques­tion, cutting through the network of opinions, social ideas, and ide­ologies. It is the question that appeals to the nobility of the soul; and it is the one question that the ignoble intellectual cannot face.

From this initial question unfold the topics of the dialogue: the function of rhetoric, the problem of justice, the question whether it is better to do injustice or to suffer injustice, and the fate of the unjust soul. Through their attitudes toward the enumerated topics, Plato char­acterizes his contemporaries. Gorgias is let off comparatively lightly.

Socrates involves him in the problem whether the teacher of rhetoric should also instill the knowledge of justice in his pupils so that they will not misuse their art. Gorgias, in the best advertising style, praises his art and admits that the rhetor has to teach justice; he condemns the misuse of rhetoric but he declines responsibility for pupils who misuse his teaching.

At this point the situation of the dialogue enters into the argument. Socrates, too, declines responsibility for the misdeeds of a young man who has listened to his teaching, but his condemnation would take the tangible form of banishing the young man from his presence and washing his hands of him; the breach of comity could not be healed.

Gorgias has to lapse into an embarrassed silence because his fine advertising speech is given the lie by the presence of the unscrupulous and vulgar Polus, his follower and partisan in the dialogue, a glaring object lesson of the evil consequences of his corrupting activity. And his embarrassment does not become less when young Polus rushes to the support of his master and starts to berate Socrates.

Walking Away if Necessary

The following scene with Polus is a masterpiece of the Platonic art of comedy. The undertone of grimness, however, as well as our contemporary experiences, remind us constantly that in a decadent society the ridiculous intellectual is the enemy of the spirit and that he is powerful enough to murder its representatives physically.

Polus is indignant. Since he cannot grasp the difference between existential honesty and intellectual argument, he has not understood that he is the cause of embarrassment for his master; he believes it to be Socrates with his quibbling about definitions. Socrates should not have raised the question whether the rhetorician could and should teach justice. Since nobody will ever deny that he knows what justice is and that he can teach it, the question is unfair and should not be asked. To involve a man in a contradiction by forcing from him an admission on a point that he is ashamed to deny betrays gross boorishness (agroikia) on the part of Socrates (461B-C).

This is the cue for Socrates to turn on the unfortunate master of etiquette with his “My most distinguished Polus!” First he subtly suggests the existential issue. He thanks Polus for coming to the rescue of the debate. For men provide themselves with friends and sons so that, as they grow old and stumble, the younger generation will help them up again in words and actions (461C).

After this slap at the product of Gorgian education, he formulates the condition under which he will enter into discussion with him. The condition elaborates the existential issue: Polus will have to restrain the prolixity of speech (makrologia) in which he indulged earlier, because the interminable suave flow of clichés in his speech makes discussion impossible.

The condition of Socrates touches upon a problem, familiar to all of us who have had experiences with rightist or leftist intellectuals. Discussion is indeed impossible with a man who is intellectually dishonest, who misuses the rules of the game, who by irrelevant profuseness seeks to avoid being nailed down on a point, and who gains the semblance of victory by exhausting the time that sets an inevitable limit to a discussion. The only defense possible against such practices is the refusal to continue the discussion; and this refusal is socially difficult because it seems to violate the rules of comity and the freedom of speech.

Polus immediately jumps at this argument and indignantly objects that he is not permitted to talk at such length as he pleases. But the war is on. Socrates pretends to be horrified at the idea that in Athens, the most free-spoken city of Hellas, Polus of all men should be prevented from talking at his pleasure–and then reminds him that his freedom to be prolix would destroy the freedom of his interlocutor, if the latter were not permitted simply to go away when he was sick of the oration. After this threat of a walkout, Polus submits to the Socratic condition.

A Willingness to be Unjust

The critical revelation of Polus’ character comes when Socrates has exacted the admission that a man who does evil does not what he truly wills. For a man can truly will only what is good; if he commits acts that are unjust he acts against his true interest. If he indulges in evil acts in the mistaken belief that they serve his interest, he reveals thereby that he is powerless to do what he truly wills. Hence the tyrant is powerless.

When this absurdity is reached, Polus can no longer restrain himself. He breaks away from the argument and starts sneering: As if you, Socrates, would not like to have power to do in the polis what seems good to you; as if you were not jealous when you see anyone killing or plundering or jailing people at his pleasure! (468E).

By this sneer, Polus declares his own level of existence. He is the type of man who will piously praise the rule of law and condemn the tyrant and who fervently envies the tyrant and would love nothing better than to be one himself. In a decadent society he is the representative of the great reservoir of common men who paralyze every effort at order and supply mass-connivance in the rise of the tyrant.

Moreover, Polus furnishes the subtle reason for political paralysis in the advanced stage of social decomposition. His sneer at Socrates implies that his personal vileness is the measure of humanity. He is firm in the conviction that every man will indulge in vile acts if he has a chance to get away with it.

Breaking the Camaraderie of the Canaille

His outburst against Socrates is motivated by honest indignation against a man who breaks the camaraderie of the canaille and pretends to be superior. And he cannot be brushed off; he insists. He gives a thumbnail sketch of Archelaus, an unsavory individual who recently had gained the rulership of Macedonia by an impressive series of crimes.

According to Socrates the successful tyrant would have to be unhappy. The absurdity is glaring. Polus taunts Socrates, saying that he is not going to tell him he would rather be any other Macedonian than Archelaus (471A-D). And he can be persistent because he knows that all the best people are on his side.

He still breaks away from the argument because he sincerely disbelieves that anybody can in good faith maintain propositions as absurd as the Socratic. With something like despair he charges that Socrates maliciously does not want to agree with him, “for surely you must think as I do” (471E).

It Is Worse To Do Injustice Than Suffer Injustice

The battle lines are now drawn more clearly. Socrates assures Polus that he will, indeed, find the majority siding with him, and offers a list of names from the best Athenian families, including that of Pericles, who will all agree with Polus. Socrates will stand alone; but he will refuse to be deprived by false witnesses of his patrimony, which is the truth (472A-B).

Nevertheless, we have not yet reached the point of murder. This is a discussion, and Polus has accepted the conditions of Socrates. His attempt to break out and to beat Socrates down by the appeal to what everybody thinks has failed. The two great clubs used by vulgarity for silencing the spirit, the “Holier Than Thou” argument and the “That’s What You Think,” have proved ineffective.

Now Socrates forces Polus on to the admission that doing injustice is worse than suffering injustice, and that doing injustice without suffering pun­ishment is the worst of all, and hence that the notorious Archelaus is more miserable than his victims and still more miserable because he escapes the due punishment for his misdeeds (479D-E).

Once this is admitted the value of rhetoric has become doubtful. What purpose can it serve to defend oneself against a justified accusation and to be acquitted, if what the guilty should do is to accuse himself and to seek his punishment. If rhetoric were used for this purpose, and only then, it would be of value (480B-D). As a matter of fact, however, it is used for the purpose of defending the criminal and to secure the gains of injustice. For such purposes it may be useful, but not for the man who does not intend to commit injustice (480E-481B).

Polus is forced into admission, but the admission is sulky. He cannot deny that the conclusions follow from the premises, but the results are absurd (atopa) (480E).

Embarrassed by Conscience of Merely by Defeat

He is embarrassed, like Gorgias, but with a difference. For Gorgias still has some sense of decency; he is aware of the existential conflict underlying the intellectual clash, and his conscience worries him. Polus is too hardened to be worried by a conscience; he is intellectually beaten, but his defeat cannot touch off a spark of decency in him. Still, he is bound by the rules of the game.

The violent reaction comes from the activist, from Callicles, the enlightened politician. He has followed the course of the debate with increasing astonishment and wrath and now he asks Chaerephon whether Socrates is in earnest about these things or whether he is joking.

Being assured that he is in earnest, he turns on Socrates: If that were true, would not the whole of human life be turned upside down; and would we not do in everything the very opposite of what we ought to be doing? (481C). Callicles has rightly sensed the revolution in the words of Socrates. This is not a mere intellectual game. If Socrates is right, then the society as represented by the politician Callicles is wrong.

And since the wrong goes to the spiritual core of human existence, the society would be corrupt to the point that it can no longer have a claim to the loyalty of man. The existence of the society in history is at stake. The battle has now reached the real enemy, the public representative of the corrupt order. And Callicles does not hesitate to join battle.

Pathos and Communication

The scene with Callicles is opened by Socrates again with a determi­nation of the existential issue. He knows what he has to expect; he warns Callicles that truth is still the guiding star of the debate and that no pressure of opinion will be of the least avail. The existential differences between the speakers are now more precisely defined by the variants of Eros. Socrates is in love with philosophy, Callicles with the demos of Athens.1

When Callicles speaks he does not dare to contradict his love; he is a politician of the type “Them are my sentiments, and if you don’t like them I can change them” (481D-E). In a few sentences, rich in implications, Plato has predetermined the inevitable course of the debate. In the two Erotes of Socrates and Callicles is implied the later development of the Republic with its distinction of the good and the evil Eros. Here, in the Gorgias, the situation is revealed in which the conception of a metamorphosis of Eros originates.

The issue at stake is that of communication and intelligibility in a decadent society. Are the existential differences between Socrates and Callicles so profound that the bridge of a com­mon humanity between them has broken down? In the Theaetetus, where Plato comes close to characterizing the enemies as beasts, he nevertheless restores community by observing that in private conversation it is possible at least to scratch the thick crust of the vulgarian and to touch in him a spark of his renounced humanity.

The bridge, thus, is not broken; but where are its points of support on both sides? They cannot be found on the level of principles of conduct, for this is precisely the level on which the protagonists meet in “war and battle.” On the level of politics no compromise is possible; the political form of the citta corrotta is the civil war. The case of Polus has shown that intellectual agreement is not followed of necessity by existential understanding.

The level of communi­cation, if there is one to be found at all, lies deeper. And to this deeper level Plato must now appeal, for otherwise the debate with Callicles would be only a repetition of the existentially inconclusive bout with Polus. This deeper level Plato designates by the term pathos (481c).

Pathos: The Common Suffering That All Men Share

Pathos is what men have in common, however variable it may be in its aspects and intensities. Pathos designates a passive experience, not an action; it is what happens to man, what he suffers, what befalls him fatefully, and what touches him in his existential core–as for instance the experiences of Eros (481C-D).

In their exposure to pathos all men are equal, although they may differ widely in the manner in which they come to grips with it and build the experience into their lives. There is the Aeschylean touch even in this early work of Plato, with its hint that the pathema experienced by all may result in a mathema different for each man.

The community of pathos is the basis of communication. Behind the hardened, intellectually supported attitudes that separate men lie the pathemata that bind them together. However false and grotesque the intellectual position may be, the pathos at the core has the truth of an immediate expe­rience. If one can penetrate to this core and reawaken in a man the awareness of his conditio humana, communication in the existential sense becomes possible.

The Necessary Condition for Debate

The possibility of communication on the level of pathos is the condition under which the debate in the Gorgias makes sense. The reminder is necessary at this juncture, as we have said, because otherwise the following argument with Callicles would be senseless. The possibility, at least, of breaking through to the pathos must be open. This does not mean, however, that the operation will actually be successful. Callicles no more than Polus will be won over.

On the level of politics the tragedy will run its course to the murder of Socrates. But when the appeal remains ineffective, what meaning can the potential community of the pathos have? We have to realize the seriousness of the impasse, if we want to understand the conclusion of the Gorgias.

When the Bond of Humanity is Broken

The impasse means that historically and politically the bond of humanity is broken; Polus and Callicles are outside the pale of human comity. Does it mean, as the inevitable consequence seems to be, that they should be killed on sight as dangerous animals? The answer of the Gorgias is a definite No.

In the Apology Socrates had warned his judges that others would come after him and with renewed insistence ask the questions for which he had to die. The prediction is fulfilled; now it is Plato who asks the questions and who is in danger, as we shall see, of suffering the fate of Socrates.

But the repetition would be a senseless sacrifice; and is there an alternative to the organization of a revolt with the purpose of exterminating the Athenian rabble? The conclusion of the Gorgias formulates the conditions under which the community of mankind can be main­tained even when on the level of concrete society it has broken down.

The condition is the faith in the transcendental community of man. The incrustation of the evildoer that remains impenetrable to the human appeal will fall off in death and leave the soul naked before the eternal judge. The order that has been broken in life will be restored in afterlife. In the logique du coeur the Judgment of the Dead is the answer to the failure of communication in life.

We shall come back to this point later. For the moment we have to be aware that Plato reminds us of the community of pathos at the beginning of the Callicles scene in order to prepare the Judgment of the Dead as the transcendental continuation of a dialogue that does not achieve existential communication among the living.

Exposing the Inverted Philosophy of Existence

The Eros of Socrates is the ruler of the scene. Callicles will have to refute not Socrates but his love, the truth of philosophy; and if he does not refute Eros, then a discord will sound through his whole life and Callicles will never be in agreement with himself (482B).

Callicles scorns the appeal to come into agreement with the pathos of Eros. The opening sentence of his lengthy answer (482C-486D) settles the existential issue as far as his own person is concerned. Callicles rejects the appeal of Socrates by inverting it; and he inverts it by transposing it to the vulgarian level.

Plato achieves a brilliant dramatic effect by revealing the double meaning that an argument has when the partners are not in existential communication. Socrates has restrained the rhetorical prolixity of Polus and he has sharpened the issue by warning Callicles that no appeal to mass opinion will avail against the law of harmony with the Eros of truth.

Now Calli­cles inverts these warnings and calls Socrates a regular demegoros, a popular speaker who gains his success by catering to the prejudices of the masses. Moreover, he ridicules the Socratic theme of pathos when he accuses Socrates of ranting in a demegoric manner because he has managed to have Polus suffer (pathein) the same mishap (pathos) that Gorgias has suffered (pathein) before him when Socrates goaded him into the admission that the rhetorician has to teach justice (482c).

Existence Interpreted as the Stronger Should Rule

Socrates gained this advantage by the trick of playing on the conflict between nature (physis) and convention (nomos). Conventionally one says that doing evil is worse than suffering evil; by nature, suffering evil is the worse. Gorgias and Polus were afraid of violating the convention and that involved them in their contradictions (482C-483A). Obviously, Callicles is no mean adversary. He is not going to be trapped like his predecessors in the contradictions of a half-hearted position. He matches the Socratic existential appeal by a philosophy of existence of his own.

The pathos, which Socrates had understood as the exposure of man to experiences that touch the core of his existence, has become in the hands of Callicles a mishap in the discussion. This change of meaning to a setback in the competitive race indicates the direction of Callicles’ interpretation of existence. Existence must not be interpreted in terms of the Eros toward the Agathon, but in terms of the stronger or weaker physis. Nature is the fundamental reality, and the victorious assertion of the physis is the meaning of life.

The order of the soul, which for Socrates origi­nates in the eroticism of the mystic, is brushed aside as a convention invented by the weaker natures to restrain the stronger ones. Nobody prefers the suffering of injustice really to its doing; those who say so are of a slavish nature; no man of a lordly nature would agree (483A-C). This is not the attitude of a second-rate rascal like Polus who is conscious of being canaille; this is the deliberate transvalua­tion of values from an existential counterposition.

The Politician Needs to Discredit the Philosopher

Callicles knows that he can maintain it only if he can invalidate the Socratic position. With his distinction of physis and nomos he strikes at the heart of Socratic eroticism: “You pretend only that you are searching for truth! As a matter of fact, you are propagating what holds a vulgar appeal for the masses!” (482E).

Polus was still in despair: How could a man entertain such fantastic propositions as Socrates? Callicles knows the motive: Socrates is in the game like everybody else; he is a demagogue who seeks favor by a pretense of respectability. Callicles is in the know of ideologies; he gets behind the other man and reveals the dubious motive behind the facade of ideas. The theoretical attack on the Socratic existential position becomes a political attack on the demagogue.

But why should Callicles, the politician, be so excited about the preacher of a morality that will keep the slavish subjects content while not hampering the superior man who sees through the swin­dle? The situation is complicated.

A Corrupt Society Connives in Criminality

The Socratic appeal is fraught, indeed, with a real danger for the politician. The characterization of convention as an invention implies that the inventor himself is aware, at some level of his consciousness, of the artificial charac­ter of moral principles. Polus was outspoken enough on the point that nobody would side with Socrates, that everybody envies the tyrant.

The restraint of convention, thus, is tempered by the con­nivance of the victims of tyranny. When a society has reached this degree of corruption, which from the point of view of Callicles is quite desirable, the harmonious connivance in criminality may, indeed, be gravely disturbed by a man who tries to persuade the people that conventions are not conventions, that their truth can be confirmed through recourse to the existential experiences in which they have originated, and that they must be taken seriously.

If an appreciable sector of the people should fall for the Socratic preaching, the situation might become unpleasant for Callicles and his type. There is more, however, to the resistance of Callicles than the fear of a Socratic popular success. The situation of the dialogue is not that of an assembly of the people. Members of the ruling class are among themselves. In such company the propositions of Socrates are in bad taste. It is the same complaint as that of Polus. But while Polus was indignant because Socrates did not conduct himself en canaille, Callicles protests that Socrates does not conduct himself as a gentleman of the superior type.

The subsequent remarks of Callicles have, therefore, in spite of their threatening undertone, the character of a not altogether unfriendly admonition to Socrates to mend his ways. They are of special interest inasmuch as they are somewhat improbable as the remarks of a younger man to the his­torical Socrates, as well as because they contain some details that do not quite fit the circumstances of Socrates’ life.

The Natural Desire to Possess More Than Others

These admonitions have an autobiographical touch. Callicles holds forth in a manner in which a friend of the family might have on occasion given Plato a piece of his mind. Callicles opens his admonitions with a clarification of the terms “justice” and “injustice.” The conventional lawmakers define jus­tice in such a manner that they will terrify the stronger man who oth­erwise would get the better of them, while they declare it shameful and unjust if a man desires to have more than the others (pleonektein) (483c).

Justice and injustice in the conventional sense are distin­guished as desire for equality and pleonexy. By nature, however, pleonexy is just; and just order, in the animal realm as well as among humans, among cities as well as among peoples, is the rule of the stronger over the weaker one (483C-D).2

The men who make history follow this law of nature; for on what other grounds could Xerxes’ invasion of Hellas be justified? Certainly not by the conventions that we teach our best and strongest men from their youth in order to tame them like young lions. If a man had sufficient strength, he would break all these charms; the slave would rise in rebellion and become our master; and the light of justice would shine forth.

Too Much Philosophy Makes Men Fools

Socrates would understand all this, if only he would drop philosophy and turn to more important things. Philosophy is an elegant accomplishment, if:

“pursued with moderation in younger years, but if a man indulges in it and carries it on in later life, he will be ignorant of the things that a gentleman ought to know. He will be inexperienced in politics; he will not be able to hold his own in a debate; he will be ignorant of human character and of its motivations through pleasures and passions.”3

When such men get involved in business or politics they will cut a ridiculous figure, just as a man of affairs would make himself ridiculous in a philosophical debate.4 One has to combine the two accomplishments and to balance them properly.

“Thus, it is not a disgrace for a young man to be interested in philosophy; on the contrary, its study is becoming to a freeman and who neglects it will never be a superior man with noble aspirations. But indulgence makes the man effeminate; he will be shy of public gatherings where men distinguish themselves; he will hang around in corners with three or four admiring youths but never speak out like a freeman.”

Callicles assures Socrates of his goodwill and affection; he asks him whether he is not ashamed of being in the notoriously defenseless position of a philosopher. For what would he do if someone had him arrested for a wrong that he has not committed? He would be confused and would not know what to say; and before a court he might not even be able to defend himself against the death penalty. And what is the value of a man who cannot defend himself against his enemies, of a man whom, so to speak, one may hit with impunity?5

The position of Callicles hinges on the identification of good and just with the self-assertive expression of the stronger nature. The debate between Callicles and Socrates that follows the admonition proves the position untenable.

Discovering the Good Statesman

We need not follow [the long debate between Socrates and Callicles] in detail (Gorgias 486D-522), but we must single out the principal arguments of Socrates because they have remained to this day the classical catalogue of arguments against the “inverted” philosophy of exis­tence that characterizes the age of enlightenment and positivism of a civilization. We shall find the same theoretical situation recurring in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries A.D.

The position of Callicles has a fundamental weakness, characteris­tic of this type of existentialism. Callicles does not seriously deny the relative rank of virtues. He is not prepared to deny that courage ranks higher than cowardice, or wisdom higher than folly.

When he identifies the good with the strong, he acts on the inarticulate premise that there exists a pre-established harmony between the lustiness represented by himself and the social success of virtues, which he does not discern too clearly but to which he gives conventional assent. Socrates, in his argument, uses the technique of pointing to facts that disprove the pre-established harmony and involves Callicles in contradictions between his valuations and the consequences of his existentialism.

The Strong is Not the Good

The first and most obvious attack is directed against the harmony between strength and goodness. Callicles had maintained that the rule of the strongest is justice. Now Socrates raises the question whether inferior people, if they are numerous enough, cannot be stronger than the better ones. And if so, would then the more numer­ous weak who impose the despised conventions not be the stronger ones; and would, as a consequence, the argument for justice by nature against justice by convention not break down?

Callicles is incensed at the idea that a rabble of slaves should lay down the law for him because they happen to be physically stronger. He withdraws imme­diately and insists that when he said “the stronger” he had meant of course “the more excellent.” Thus the first defense of the principle that the survival of the fittest entails the survival of the best has broken down. The “excellent” are finally defined by Callicles as the men who are most wise and courageous in affairs of state. They ought to be the rulers, and it would be fair if they had more than their subjects (491D-E).

Socrates counters with the question: Should they have more than themselves? This question brings a new outburst from Callicles. A man should not rule himself. On the contrary, goodness and justice consist in the satisfaction of desires. “Luxury, license, and freedom” (tryphe, akolasia, eleutheria), if provided with means, are virtue and happiness (arete, eudaimonia); whatever is said to the contrary is the ornamental talk of worthless men (492C).

It is not difficult for Socrates to suggest desires of such baseness that even Callicles squirms. But he has become stubborn and insists on the identification of happiness with the satisfaction of desires; and he refuses to distinguish between good and bad pleasures (495B). The resistance of Callicles gives Socrates the opportunity to in­troduce the question whether men who are admitted by Callicles to be good (such as the wise and courageous) feel more pleasure than those who are admitted to be inferior (such as the cowards).

The result of the inquiry is the conclusion that a coward can experience, quite possibly, more pleasure than a wise and courageous man. By the reasoning of Callicles, therefore, the cowards would have to be considered the better men because they experience more happiness in the hedonistic sense. This contradiction, finally, compels Callicles to admit the distinction of good and bad pleasures (499C). With this admission the case of Callicles is lost. Socrates can, step by step, force his adversary’s unwilling assent to the positive philosophy of existence, from which the later position of the Re­public is derived.

Philia: The Bond Among Men

In the present context we have to concentrate on the existential enmity between Callicles and Socrates-Plato and on the critical analysis of political corruption. Above all, Socrates now resumes the issue of communication in a more radical manner.

Only if the soul is well ordered can it be called lawful (nomimos) (504D); and only if it has the right order (nomos) is it capable of entering into communion (koinonia) (507E). The pathos is no more than a precondition for community; in order to actualize it, the Eros must be oriented toward the Good (agathon) and the disturbing passions must be restrained by Sophrosyne.

If the lusts are unrestrained, man will lead the life of a robber (lestes). Such a man cannot be the friend (prosphiles) of God or other men, for he is incapable of communion, and who is incapable of communion is incapable of friendship (philia) (507E). Friendship, philia, is Plato’s term for the state of existential community. Philia is the existential bond among men; and it is the bond as well between Heaven and Earth, man and God. Because philia and order pervade everything, the universe is called kosmos (order) and not disorder or license (akosmia, akolasia) (508A).

Protecting Oneself Against Injustice

The meaning of order in existence is re-established. The existential issue between Socrates and Callicles can now be taken up in earnest. Socrates restates the order of evils:

(1) It is bad to suffer injustice;

(2) it is worse to commit injustice;

(3) it is worst to remain in the disorder of the soul that is created by doing injustice and not to experience the restoration of order through punishment.

The sneer of Callicles–that the philosopher is exposed to ignominious treatment–can now be met on the level of the philosophy of order.

Callicles had taken the stand that it was of supreme importance to protect oneself effectively against suffering injustice. Socrates maintains that the price of safety against injustice may be too high.

The suffering of injustice can be averted most effectively if a man acquires a position of power, or if he is the companion of the powers that be. The tyrant is in the ideal po­sition of safety against injustice. About the nature of the tyrant there are no doubts, and the companion of the tyrant will be acceptable to him only if he is of a similar nature, that is, if he connives in the injustice of the ruling power.

The companion of tyranny may escape the suffering of injustice but his corruption will inevitably involve him in the doing of injustice. Callicles agrees enthusiastically and again reminds Socrates that the companion of the tyrant will plunder and kill the man who does not imitate the tyrant.

Is the Prolonging Life the Most Important Thing?

The argument is nearing its climax. The sneers of Callicles can be effective only against men of his own ilk. They fall flat before a man who is ready to die. Do you think, is the answer of Socrates, that all cares should be directed toward the prolongation of life? (511B-C).

The “true man” is not so fond of life, and there may be situations in which he no longer cares to live (512E). The argument is not yet directed per­sonally against Callicles, but we feel the tension increasing toward the point where Callicles is co-responsible, through his conniving conduct, for the murder of Socrates and perhaps of Plato himself. The social conventions, which Callicles despises, are wearing thin; and the advocate of nature is brought to realize that he is a murderer face to face with his victim.

Living Among Intellectual Pimps for Power

The situation is fascinating for those among us who find ourselves in the Platonic position and who recognize in the men with whom we associate today the intellectual pimps for power who will connive in our murder tomorrow. It would be too much of an honor, however, to burden Callicles personally with the guilt of murder. The whole society is corrupt, and the process of corruption did not start yesterday. Callicles is no more than one of a kind; and he may even get caught himself in the morass that he deepens.

Who is a Good Statesman?

Socrates raises the question of the good statesman on principle. Goodness and badness are now defined in terms of advancing or decomposing the order of existence. A statesman is good if under his rule the citizens become better; he is bad if under his rule the citizens become worse, in terms of existential order.

Socrates reviews the men who are the pride of Athenian history: Themistocles, Pericles, Cimon, Miltiades; and applying his criterion he finds that they were bad statesmen. They have bloated the city with docks and harbors and walls and revenues, and they have left no room for justice and temperance.

The conclusive proof for the evil character of their rule is the ferocious injustice committed against them by the very citizens whom it would have been their task to improve. The present generation is the heir to the evil that has accu­mulated through the successive rules of such “great” statesmen. And men like Callicles and Alcibiades who cater to the evil passions of the masses might well become their victims.

A Flatterer of the People

So, what does Callicles want with his admonitions to conform to the habits of politics and to become a flatterer of the demos? Does Callicles seriously suggest that Socrates should join the ranks of those who corrupt society still further? Is it not, rather, his task to pronounce the truth that would restore some order? But Callicles cannot break out of the circle of his evil. He can only repeat that the consequences for Socrates will be unpleasant.

The Socratic answer fixes the position of Plato: No doubt, the consequences may be unpleasant; who does not know that in Athens any man may suffer anything; nor would it be a surprise if he were put to death; on the contrary, he rather expects a fate of this kind. And why does he anticipate his death?

Because he is one of the few Athenians who cares about the true art of politics and the only one in his time who acts like a statesman (521D). This last formulation, by which Plato claims for himself the true statesmanship of his time, is important in several respects.

The Order of the Soul in Western Civilization

In the construction of the Gorgias, this claim destroys the authority of Callicles to give advice to anybody with regard to public conduct. The man who stands convicted as the accomplice of tyrannical murderers and as the corruptor of his country does not represent spiritual order, and nobody is obliged to show respect to his word. The authority of public order lies with Socrates.

With regard to the relation of Plato to Athens the claim stigmatizes the politicians who are obsessed by the “love of the people” (demou Eros, 513C) as the “adversaries” [antistasiotes, 513C) of the existential order represented by Socrates-Plato; the authoritative order is transferred from the people of Athens and its leaders to the one man Plato.

Surprising as this move may seem to many, Plato’s claim has proved historically quite sound. The order represented by Callicles has gone down in ignominy; the order represented by Plato has survived Athens and is still one of the most important ingredients in the order of the soul of those men who have not renounced the traditions of Western civilization.

The Judgment of the Dead

The transfer of authority from Athens to Plato is the climax of the Gorgias. The meaning of the transfer and the source of the new authority, however, still need some clarification. Let us recall what is at stake. The transfer of authority means that the authority of Athens, as the public organization of a people in history, is inval­idated and superseded by a new public authority manifest in the person of Plato.

That is revolution. And it is even more than an ordinary revolution in which new political forces enter the struggle for power in competition with the older ones. Plato’s revolution is a radical call for spiritual regeneration. The people of Athens has lost its soul. The representative of Athenian democracy, Callicles, is existentially disordered; the great men of Athenian history are the corruptors of their country; the law courts of Athens can kill a man physically but their sentence has no moral authority of pun­ishment. The fundamental raison d’etre of a people, that it goes its way through history in partnership with God, has disappeared; there is no reason why Athens should exist, considering what she is. The Gorgias is the death sentence over Athens.

But what is the nature of the authority that renders judgment? Plato reveals it through the Myth of the Judgment of the Dead, at the end of the Gorgias. Callicles has reminded Socrates repeatedly of the fate that awaits him at the hands of an Athenian court. In a final answer Socrates says that he would rather die with a just soul than go into the beyond with a soul full of injustice. For this would be the last and worst of all evils (522E). The reason for his resolution he sets forth in the myth.

Why Men Are Judged After Death

From the Age of Cronos there stems a law concerning the destiny of man, which still is in force among the gods: that men who have led just and holy lives will go, after death, to the Islands of the Blessed, while those who have led unjust and impious lives will go to Tartarus for punishment.

In the Age of Cronos, and even until quite recently in the Age of Zeus, the judgments were rendered on the day on which the men were to die; the men as well as the judges were alive. As a result, frequent miscarriages of justice occurred. For the men “had their clothes on,” and the apparel of the body covered the true character of the souls; and the judges themselves were hampered “by their clothes” in perceiving correctly the state of the soul before them.

The complaints about misjudgements came to Zeus and he changed the procedure. Now the judgments are passed on the souls after death; and in judgment are sitting Minos, Rhadamanthys, and Aeacus, the dead sons of Zeus (523-524A). Stripped of their bodies, the souls reveal their beauty or deformity; the judges can inspect them impartially because nothing indicates their earthly rank, and they can send them correctly to the Islands of the Blessed or to Tartarus.

Temporary Suffering

The purpose of punishment is twofold. By temporary suffering the souls will be chastised unless they are too bad; some of them, however, are incurable and their eternal suffering will fill the improvable souls with fear and thus contribute to their chastisement.

The utterly bad souls who suffer eternal punishment seem to be always (if we can trust the authority of Homer) the souls of men who in their bodily existence were rulers and potentates; for the greatest crimes are always committed by those who have power. If, however, a good soul appears before the judges, it is most likely to be the soul of a man who has been a philosopher and who has refrained in his lifetime from interfering with the affairs of other men (526C).

The Myth as the Experience of the Soul

The myth of the Gorgias is the earliest of the Platonic poems that concern a philosophy of order and history. It is very simple in its construction. Nevertheless, it contains in a rudimentary form the meanings expressed, by a more differentiated symbolism, in the later poems of the Republic, the Statesman, and the Timaeus. The present myth owes its value to its elemental terseness and its closeness to the experiences expressed in it.

Socrates opens his story with the warning that he is, indeed, telling the “truth,” even though Callicles may consider the myth no more than a pretty tale (523A). In an abbreviated form Plato raises the issue of the truth of the myth, which becomes the object of elaborate discussion in the Timaeus. Hence we shall follow the same procedure as in the analysis of the other myths, that is, we shall not search for the “truth” on the level of the “pretty story” but translate the symbols into the experiences of the soul that they articulate.

The Reversed Meaning of “Life” and “Death”

The first symbols that offer themselves for such translation are the ages of Cronos and Zeus. They signify the historical sequence of the age of the myth and of the age of the differentiated, autonomous personality. Plato introduces them in the Gorgias for the purpose of dating the change in procedure for the judgment of the dead.

In the Age of Cronos, and “until quite recently in the Age of Zeus,” the souls were judged while they were still “alive”; that is, the judgment was biased by regard for the worldly station of the soul. Now the souls are judged when they are “dead,” that is, in their nakedness, without regard to worldly rank. This change in the mode of judgment is quite “recent”; that is, in historical time, Plato is speaking of the new order of the soul inaugurated by Socrates.

Under the new dispensation, the naked souls are judged by the “Sons of Zeus.” The Sons of Zeus are the men of the new age, the philosophers in general, and primarily Plato himself. These Sons of Zeus are “dead.” We have to ascertain, therefore, the meaning of the symbols “life” and “death” in the myth.

The meaning of death in the myth has been carefully prepared by incidental remarks in the dialogue itself. When Callicles praised the life of hedonistic happiness, Socrates suggested that in this case life would be something awful (deinos). Euripides might even be right in saying that life is death, and death is life. Most likely, at this moment we would have to be considered dead; for it would be true what a sage has said: that our body (soma) is our tomb (sema) (493A).6

The true life of the soul, thus, would be its existence free of the prison of the body, in a life preceding or following its earthly entombment. Concerning the meaning of pre-existence and postexistence Plato has expressed himself at length in other dialogues.

Pluto and the Fear and Frenzy of the Body

The great symbolization of pre-existence is given in the myth of the Phaedrus. Let us recall only one passage that clarifies the meaning of the “Sons of Zeus.” In Phaedrus (250B) Plato speaks of the happy existence “when we [i.e., the philosophers] followed in the train of Zeus,” seeing the forms of eternal being that now can be recalled through anamnesis.

Concerning the idea of postexistence, in particular with regard to the purification of the soul in afterlife, there is an important passage in the Cratylus (403-404B). In this passage Plato rejects as unfounded the fear that men have of the ruler of the underworld. His names, Pluto and Hades, indicate that he is rich and consequently does not want anything of us, and that he has the knowledge of all noble things.

If the souls who dwell in his presence had really reason to fear him, at least now and then one would escape from him. But, as a matter of fact, they like to dwell with him; they are bound to him by their active desire; for he has the knowledge of virtue and he points to the souls the path to their perfection.

In life, however, the souls have not fully developed this desire for perfection. That is the reason Pluto wants them only after they are freed from the passions of the body. Only after death will they be free to follow undisturbed their desire for virtue (peri areten epithymia). By this desire Pluto binds the souls to himself, for in the relation with him they will at last achieve a purification of which they were incapable as long as they were obsessed by “the fear and frenzy of the body.”

No compulsion, thus, is necessary to make the souls undergo their cathartic suffering in the underworld; on the contrary, here at last the soul is free to pass through the desired catharsis that was prevented in earthly existence by the obstacle of the body.

The various passages cast some light on the mythical play with the symbols of life and death in the Gorgias. Death can mean either the entombment of the soul in its earthly body, or the shedding of the body. Life can mean either earthly existence, or freedom of the soul from the frenzy of the body. The shifting between these several meanings is the source of the richness of the Gorgias.

The Imitatio Socrates

Let us begin with the meaning of the symbols on the level of history. In the historico-political process those who live lustfully like Callicles are the “dead,” entombed in the passion and frenzy of their body; they are judged by the “living,” that is, by the philosophers who let their souls be penetrated by the experience of death and, thus, have achieved life sub specie mortis in freedom from somatic passion. The transfer of authority means the victory of the life of the soul over the deadliness of earthly passions. This tension between the life of the soul and the tomb of the body, however, has only “recently” developed in history.

Formerly, in the age of the myth, the distinction between life and death had not been so clear; at that time earthly existence could easily be mistaken for the life of the soul. The soul had first to be separated from the body through the experience of death. Only when Thanatos had entered the soul could it be distinguished clearly from the sema of the body; only then could its nonsomatic nature, the co-eternity of its existence with the cosmos and the autonomy of its order, become intelligible.

The life and death of Socrates were the decisive events in the discovery and liberation of the soul. The soul of Socrates was oriented toward the Agathon through its eroticism; and the Agathon invaded the soul with its eternal substance, thereby creating the autonomous order of the soul beyond the passions of the body. Through this catharsis, the soul in its earthly existence received the stigmata of its eternal post-existence. The life of Socrates was the great model of the liberation of the soul through the invasion of death into earthly existence; and the imitatio Socratis had become the order of life for his followers, and above all for Plato.

The Authority of Death Over Life

Only now, when the Sons of Zeus have died, when death embraces them in life, is the catharsis of the soul revealed as the true meaning of life; and only the souls who have died have the clearness of view that enables them to judge the “living.” The authority of the judges, thus, is the authority of death over life.

But what is the status of those who do not have the experience of death in existence and through this experience gain the life of the soul? On this question hinges the problem of history as a meaningful order, i.e., as the process of revelation. The revelation of divinity in history is ontologically real. The myth of the people and the poets is really superseded by the myth of the soul. The old myth is in full decadence; it is corroded by pleonexy and reason, as evidenced by Gorgias, Polus, and Callicles.

The New Order Between God and Man

The order of the soul as revealed through Socrates has, indeed, become the new order of relations between God and man. And the authority of this new order is in­escapable. To bury oneself in the tomb of bodily existence (the escape of Callicles) is of no avail; the way from the old myth leads, not to the darkness of nature, but to the life of the soul; and the soul must die and, divested of its body, stand before its judge.

The new order is understood secretly even by those who meet it with sulkiness and recalcitrance, for this secret understanding binds the partners of the dialogue together at least for its duration. We remember the passage of the Cratylus. The “desire for virtue” is present even if it is obscured by the mania of the body; and it will reign freely when the obstacle of the body is removed.

Insofar as the dialogue is an attempt at existential communication, it is an attempt to liberate the soul from its passions, to denude it of its body. Socrates speaks to his interlocutors as if they were “dead” souls, or at least as if they were souls who are capable of death.

On the part of Socrates, the dialogue is an attempt to submit the others, at least tentatively, to the catharsis of death. The judgment of the dead thus is enacted in part in the dialogue itself, concretely, in the attempt of Socrates to pierce through the “body” of his interlocutors to their naked souls. He tries to make die, and thereby to make live, those who threaten him with death.

The Exhortation to Happiness in Life and in Death

Hence Socrates, after he has finished the tale of the myth, turns to Callicles for the last time and offers him an exhortation of his own in exchange for his former friendly admonitions. He assures Callicles that he is persuaded of the truth of the judgment and that he wishes to present his soul undefiled before the judge; and that, to the utmost of his powers, he exhorts all men to be equally persuaded.

He now exhorts Callicles, therefore, to take part in this combat (agon), which is the agon of life and greater than any other. Otherwise he will suffer before his eternal judges the fate that he predicted for Socrates before the earthly judges. “Follow my persuasion”—and he will lead Callicles to eudaimonia in this life and after death (527C).

The existential appeal is now supported by the ultimate authority of the demand to submit freely to the inevitable judgment right here and now: to enter the community of those whose souls have been liberated by death and who live in the presence of the judgment.

Catharsis as the Meaning of Existence

The barriers between the earthly existence of the soul and its post­existence have broken down. Catharsis is the meaning of existence for the soul on both sides of the dividing line of disembodiment.

The catharsis that the soul has not achieved in earthly existence will have to be achieved in postexistence. Hence the punishment, the timoria, that the soul will have to undergo in afterlife does not differ from the punishment that it has to undergo in this life for the purpose of purification. This purifying timoria is a social process; it can be applied by gods or by men. Those who are touchable by it are those whose misdeeds (hamartemata) are curable; they are able to undergo the purification by pain and suffering.

And there is no other way for the soul to be delivered from evil (adikia) “in this world or the next” (525C). In this idea of the catharsis through suffering “in this world or the next” there can again be felt the Aeschylean touch of the wisdom through suffering as the great law of the psyche for gods and men.

The curable soul, thus, is permanently in the state of judgment; to experience itself permanently in the presence of the judgment, we might say, is the criterion of the curable soul; “only the good souls are in hell,” as Berdiaev, on occasion, has formulated the problem. This conception, however, would have an unexpected consequence if it were understood not existentially but dogmatically.

The Dangers of Dogmatic Derailment and Self-Communication

If the symbol of punishment in afterlife were misunderstood as a dogmatic hypoth­esis, the not-so-good souls might arrive at the conclusion that they will wait for afterlife and see what is going to happen then; if suffering is the lot of the soul under all circumstances, they can wait for their share of suffering (which is no more than a dogmatic assertion) in postexistence and meanwhile enjoy some pleasurable criminality.

It is a problem in the psychology of dogmatic derailment similar to that which has arisen in some instances in Calvinism: If the fate of the soul is predestined, some may arrive at the conclusion that it does not matter what they do. This psychological derailment, through the dogmatic misunderstanding of the existential truth of the myth, Plato forestalls by the threat of eternal condemnation for the incurable souls.

In the symbolism of the myth eternal condemnation is the correlate to the refusal of communication on the level of the myth of the soul; eternal condemnation means, in existential terms, self-excommunication. The revelation of the divinity in history moves on; the authority rests with the men who live in friendship with God; the criminal can achieve nothing but the perdition of his soul.


1. A more detailed account of this scene would have to go into the homo-erotic implications; Socrates refers to philosophia as ta ema paidika (482a).

2. The problem of pleonexy is intimately connected with the “inverted” philosophy of existence. When the new philosophy of existence recurs, in the seventeenth century A.D., the problem of pleonexy also reappears. Locke makes the curious attempt to propagate pleonexy as conventional justice; he institutionalizes the “desire to have more than the other man” by transforming government into a protective agency for the gains of pleonexy.

3. See Bentham’s attack on the “ascetic” type.

4. In this part of the admonition we probably have to see the origin of the Diversion of the Theaetetus.

5. This section of the Callicles speech is distinctly autobiographic. One has to realize the situation of Plato in Athens and the effect that advice of this kind must have had on a proud man who was conscious of his qualities.


This excerpt is from Order and History (Volume II): The World of the Polis (Collected Works of Eric Voegelin 15) (Columbia, MO: University of Missouri Press, 2000)

Eric Voegelin

Eric Voegelin (1901-85) was a German-born American Political Philosopher. He was born in Cologne and educated in Political Science at the University of Vienna, at which he became Associate Professor of Political Science. In 1938 he and his wife fled from the Nazi forces which had entered Vienna and emigrated to the United States, where they became citizens in 1944. He spent most of his academic career at the University of Notre Dame, Louisiana State University, the University of Munich and the Hoover Institution of Stanford University. More information about him can be found under the Eric Voegelin tab on this website.

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